Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Young people were absent from police brutality discussion at UMass’ New Africa House

Art and social media were described as mediums to get young people more engaged
(Photo courtesy of the UMass Fine Arts Center and Philadanco! The Philadelphia Dance Company’s Facebook pages)

The University of Massachusetts W.E.B. Du Bois department of African American Studies hosted the Philadelphia based dance group “PHILADANCO” Monday night to discuss a recent project titled “Endangered Species,”which addresses the issue of police brutality against black males. Despite being held on a college campus, the event’s audience lacked representation from a key demographic: young people.

Dancers in Anthony Burrell’s “Endangered Specieswore prison jumpsuits with the names and date of death of black men who died as a result of police brutality. The costumes pay tribute to men like Freddie Gray, who was 25 when he died of spinal cord injuries after being arrested by the Baltimore Police Department. Gray falls into the demographic that faces the highest risk for death by police brutality: black men aged 15 to 34.

This is the same age demographic that was noticeably absent Monday night, something that was brought up by one of the few young people present. Shennelle Bingham, a freshman engineering student, decided to attend the event after seeing a poster outside her classroom.

Bingham said that she was excited about the event’s speakers, but was disappointed not to see many other attendees her age, “I feel like there should be more undergrad students, but I don’t think it was that [well] advertised,” she said, adding that the building can be hard to find, “I don’t feel like a lot of students have classes in this building so that could be…one of the factors.”

Tucked away among the Central dorms, the New Africa House, where the event was held, is fairly inconspicuous. This is not the only place where African American studies are being overlooked.

Another audience member brought this up toward the end of the discussion when she reached out to the dancers about how to promote interest and engagement in African American studies in the classroom.

Victor Lewis, a dancer for PHILADANCO, said that a lot of people haven’t been introduced to African American studies, but that when it is done right, art may be the bridge people need to finally connect with these issues.

“When they look at something like a black male being handcuffed or [having] a gun in their face, they don’t have anything to do with it because they’re not being taught the history and what it entails,” Lewis explained. “If we can keep that door open in the arts, and just continue pushing the envelope and get more art programs happening…I think that will be an easier way for people to get involved.”

Lewis’s colleague Janine Beckles thinks the best way to get young people interested in African American issues is through social media. “This generation is like ‘generation me,’” she said.

Beckles explained students can be distracted by all kinds of other trends that make it hard to introduce a heavy topic like African American studies. She added, just saying that it’s time to start thinking about African American studies’ isn’t enough.

She said they’re not thinking about that, but “they’re thinking about ‘oh, what am I going to wear next.’”

Beckles says the best plan is to work with things young people already like.

“I would say…start trying to develop…a way to put those things together,” said Beckles. “Instagram stories, Facebook stories, this generation is very much into that and we can…try to incorporate that with our classes and maybe see [a rise in participation].”

The PHILADANCO dance company will be performing a mix of works illustrating the past 50 years of their company including “Endangered Specieson Feb. 6 at the UMass Fine Arts Center Concert Hall. The show will begin at 7:30 p.m. and will be preceded by a talk by Paul Dennis of the UMass Dance Department, which will take place at 6:30 p.m. in the lobby. The show will be immediately followed by a short Q&A session.

Lily Robinson can be reached at [email protected].

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